I guess there comes a time in every teacher’s life, if she taught as long as I did, when an event occurs that is so profoundly heart-rending that it stays with you for the rest of your life. The death of a student is one such event. The way one handles the situation with the students also affects their own reaction and response. It is a time of bonding—adult to child, teacher to colleague, student to peer, and eventually parent to parent.
I’d been teaching perhaps a year or two at a rural middle school when I lost my first. My sixth grade was reading The Scarlet Ibis by James Hurst. It was and always will be a special favorite of mine, bittersweet with memories and poignancy. The story chronicles two brothers’ relationship as the older brother is tasked with caring for his young sibling who’s crippled. No amount of pushing, cajoling, or bullying on the big brother’s part can make poor Doodle walk, and in the end, he dies in almost the same way, in the same posture, as a scarlet ibis which came to die in their garden. It’s a poignant story filled with symbolism, which is why it’s in our literature texts.
It was a Friday afternoon when we got to the place in the story where Doodle spots the scarlet ibis floundering in the yard and we all wondered what the bird had to do with the storyline; the bell rang for the weekend dismissal and we had to be content to remain in suspense until the following Monday. Actually, it would be a few days longer than that when we rejoined the boys, but we had no way of knowing at the time.
There was a horrible accident over the weekend; one of my little girls, no older than twelve, was shot accidentally by a relative with a gun. I don’t know the circum- stances, whether he was playing with it and she got in the way or whether they were target practicing under lax adult supervision. Whatever the case, the result was the same— Brenda was dead. Entering the school building that Monday morning, I noticed at first a subdued atmosphere, then I heard the sobs of crying children. My own sobs joined theirs moments later when I was informed. There was no class that day although most of the students attended, sent by parents who perhaps didn’t know how to deal with the news any more than we did. Counselors and social workers were called; an assembly followed. We adults clung to each other as the students clung to us, the older more experienced teachers taking control of the situation as best as they could while all of us tried to make any sense of it all.
That was my first experience with the death of a student; it would be, unfortunately, the first of many more to come. When the services were behind us and a back-to-normal routine was in order, the class and I resumed the story of the boy and the scarlet bird. I remember most how quiet the room got as I read aloud the perverse cruelty of the elder brother as he caused the circumstance that brought about Doodle’s death. We cried together for the boy, the ibis, and the little girl we would never see again.
The death of a student never got any easier to deal with, no matter how many years of experience I acquired under my belt. The next one occurred a few years later when I was already teaching high school. He was one of the most personable young men I had in class. A talented, respectful, motivated young man, Robert was a promising musician. Three days before graduation, he made the mistake of drinking and driving. He died the day before he would have graduated. I’ll never forget the empty chair with his graduation gown draped over the back, the mortarboard and tassel lying on the seat. Nor will I get over the memory of his sister accepting his diploma on his family’s behalf. There were several more drinking and driving incidents in which I lost students after that one, but I guess because Robert was the first, I am still haunted by his memory to this day.
The years pass, new students come into your life as those moving to the next level leave, and you go on. I began teaching advanced placement classes over the course of time, and, in my quest to find new and challenging materials to teach, I came across the medieval morality play, Everyman. I decided to try it with my seniors. I thought it was a good story to ensure student participation; not only did they read the parts aloud, they could also see the allegorical significance of how the plot applied to their individual lives.
In the play, the character of Everyman allegorically represents every man, woman, and child. When Death tells Everyman he must accompany him on his last journey, he begs his Cousin, Fellowship, and Kindred, and others, to accompany him. Of course, they all respond they can’t. Neither can Everyman’s attributes—Beauty, Strength, Good Deeds, etc. He must go alone to his final destination.
We left off on a Friday, little knowing that one of us would indeed take the part of Everyman literally. Leah and her sister were on their way home from a city about two hundred miles away. Her older sister (also one of my former students) was late for work and in a hurry, so much so that when their car crashed, it went end over end from front to
back instead of rolling from side to side. As far as I know (and pray), both girls were
A colleague pulled me to the side before my first class and quietly, tearfully informed me. All I remember is the silent scream in my throat as I tried to take in the news that I couldn’t quite make myself believe. There was no way I could deal with the class that morning. Struggling to control my sobs, I told the juniors what I knew and asked what we should do. No one had any suggestions, so to my recollection, we basically sat in silence, none of us knowing what to say. The next class was Leah’s. The seniors who attended that day came in subdued, in shock. We talked for a while, cried amongst ourselves, and then I asked them to write their thoughts down on paper, perhaps in a letter to Leah or in a journal entry. Two of the boys wrote such beautiful poems they were published in the yearbook as a tribute to Leah. I remember one started with the words, “I see the desk where she once sat…” and was so poignant we all cried again as he read it to us with a shaking voice.
The day after the services, we resumed reading the conclusion to Everyman, all of us feeling just how real the story had become for us. I didn’t read the morality play
with my seniors again for a number of years—I didn’t think I could subject myself to the memories that were sure to come. But a few years down the road, I let go of my misgivings and tried it again. I preceded the story by telling the class about Leah and how we finished the story without her. They accepted the news quietly, but were eager to read the play. After they were assigned their parts and read the story, I thought it would be amusing to have them divide into groups and perform the play for their peers, delivering the message in a way the class could relate to. The gang drive-by was the mode of expression for one group, yet another’s was suicide. Eagerly, the groups wrote up their
dialogues and prepared their props for their performances. The day we were scheduled to perform each play for videotaping, one of the key members of a particular group was absent. I asked his best friends where he was.
“Keith shot him,” Santana announced matter-of-factly.
“You what?” I asked Keith as members of the class gasped.
“It wasn’t bad,” Keith explained with a smirk, as though shooting his friend was a common occurrence. “We were checking out my dad’s gun and it went off. I shot Chris in the leg.”
The class reacted calmly, a few giggles and a few shaking heads here and there, I guess because neither of the friends seemed upset. The boys explained to their peers that it was just a flesh wound to the knee and Chris would be back the following day. “I swear, Keith,” I reprimanded the boy, “you’re supposed to watch out for your friend, not hurt him. You’ll kill him one of these days.” As a teacher, as a human being, sometimes we say things harmlessly, never intending our words to be prophetic. I’ll never forget my innocuous utterance—not now.
Keith and the rest of the class laughed at my outburst and we performed without Chris. The next weekend, Keith killed Chris in yet another drinking and driving incident. I never read Everyman again.
Accidents are the worst ways in which I’ve lost students. One which stands out in my memory occurred in the mid-2000s. One of my best scholars, a young man who always had a smile and a hug for everyone every day, loved hunting. He graduated in 2005 and started college in the fall. His mother, a colleague in our school district, kept
me up to date about how well he was doing and how excited he was that she and her husband had planned for him to go on a safari in Asia to hunt for new game as a reward for his 4.0 GPA.
I got to work one morning as usual, but, on my way down the hall, I saw two of my closest colleagues and friends heading my way, somber-faced. They broke the news: the father and his son were on horseback when the accident occurred, the boy fell from the saddle, and the horse fatally kicked him. Just like that—he was gone. I don’t know what hurt the most, the fact that this young man’s promising life was cut short so early, or that his father had been there to see it all and now had to accompany his son from such a far-away land, or that the mother awaited her son’s return, never to see him alive again.
Throughout the days we waited for his arrival back to the States, numerous classmates of the fallen graduate came to visit my classroom, to cry, to hug, to reminisce, and to comfort. We spent the week in tears. Almost all the entire graduating class attended the services: the childhood friends, the girl who had a secret crush on him for years, and us, his teachers, whose lives he touched for such a short time before he was called away.
Just before the accident, he had said to his father, as he looked at the world from atop the mountain on which he died, that he was so awestruck if he died at that moment he would die happy. I pray that he did. This student was not my last, sadly, but he was one of the most memorable because of his very nature and his promising future. Looking through some old student papers I still have, I recently discovered I’d kept his twelve page research paper. Ironically, I’d made the students that year use William Faulkner’s novel As I Lay Dying as the basis for their papers. That was the first and the last year I ever did that. I continued teaching until 2014, and I stay in touch with somewhere between 800-850 former students through social media. The impact of losing one or another and yet another over the course of the years doesn’t get any less powerful. They’re all so very young to lose battles with diseases, to die while texting and driving on my birthday, to expire just as I’ve found them again on Facebook or Instagram. An unknown author once said, “Some are bound to die young. By dying young a person stays young in people’s memory. If he burns brightly before he dies, his brightness shines for all time.” I know this to be true because I think of these special people from time to time, always remember them in my prayers, and welcome them into my heart when their presence seems to beckon that I think of them on particular days—shining brightly in my memories.
(The names of students have been changed.)